Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Neurobiology of romantic love
What are the neurobiological components of romantic love?
Overview[edit | edit source]
So what is romantic love? How and why are we motivated to experience romantic love? What neurobilogicalresponses occur when we experience romantic love and is it different to other forms of love?
Test your perceptions of what romantic love is[edit | edit source]
If you were asked what romantic love looked like or if you could describe the effects it had on a person what would you say? Would images of Romeo and Juliet and the Notebooks undying love flood your imagination?
These images might be whatsociety associate with and attributes as romantic love because of the movies, literature and art, but these representations don't actually depict what love is, the various types of love or what it means physiologically.
This book chapter aims to explore romantic love in more detail. Defining romantic love, exploring the underlying motivation for humans and animals to search for romantic love and the neurobiology and chemistry of love . Exploring what love more generally but focusing on romantic love, examining the effects that occur when humans fall in love and how these affect the human body .
After reading this book chapter you will have greater insight into romantic love and why people are attracted to the people they are. You will have an understanding of the neurobiology behind the sensation we call love and will know a little more about the physical reactions romantic love causes in the body.
Case study[edit | edit source]
Melissa and Steve have been dating for two months and can't keep their hands off one another. They feel that they are completely in love and ready to get married. According to Sternberg's theorywhat kind of love are they actually in? What type of love will they be in once they have been married for 30 years and despite being extremely close, have four kids and are looking forward to retirement together they seldom make love? If you were Melissa or Steve would this kind of love be enough for you?
What is love?[edit | edit source]
If you were asked if you could relate to the feeling of falling in love and being loved, most individuals would say yes. However, when asked to define those feelings it becomes a struggle (Esch & Stefano, 2005).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines love as a strong feeling of affection and/or sexual attraction for someone. Thus, love is usually identified as an emotion and linked with the way humans feel about family, friends and romantic partners. However only in the last ten years has psychological and neurological research focused on the science of love (Esch & Stefano, 2005).
One hypothesis on what love is was proposed by leading experts in the theory of love, during their 2002 study into the experience of love they proposed that love is divided into three partly overlapping stages, these are lust, attraction, and attachment (Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li & Brown, 2002).
Lust, also known as libido or sex drive, is defined by its desire for sexual gratification and pleasure. Attraction is about more specific romantic desires and compatibility for long-term attachments. However, attachment (romantic love) explores the level of trust and intimacy that is created during bonding for healthy relationships lasting for many years and even decades (Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li and Brown, 2002). Despite this theory having some significant resultsit fails to take into account other theories on love and neurological components.
Is love an emotion?[edit | edit source]
When youremotion but is a feeling which is a subset of emotion . Emotions are complex physiological and psychological responses to an event or events that effect human behaviour and, in some cases, cognitive ability.to name four emotions what would you say? Sad, happy, angry and love perhaps. In a study by Fehr and Russell (1984) participants were asked to write down a list of emotions, interestingly one of the most common responses was ‘love’ despite the fact that love strictly speaking isn't an
Emotion is often seen to be a significant factor in motivation as it provides the fuel or passion required to pursue a goal (Fehr and Russell, 1984).
Theories of love[edit | edit source]
Sigmund Freud developed one of the first theories of love. Freud's theory of the id, the ego and superego proposed that sexual desires where part of the id's pleasure principle were as the need for within the ego ideal (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012). Since then dozens of theories have emerged on love, some of the significant theories are explored below.
Evolutionary Requirement[edit | edit source]
Evolutionary psychology advises that love was developed as a survival tool. Human babies and infants are dependent on their parents for a significant portion of their life and it was therefore in the infant's best interest that the parents remained together. Compared to other mammals and animals, humans rely heavily on both parents for survival and for a greater period of time they are completely dependent on them (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Esch & Stefano, 2005).
Biology of attachment[edit | edit source]
Biological models of attachment tend to see view love as a necessary human drive for advancement and survival. Biology theorists suggest there are three stages of love; these are lust, attraction and attachment (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li & Brown, 2002).
The first stage lust is the physiological feeling of sexual desire and attraction,this stage is generally based unconsciously on a person’s appearance and pheromones for mating. Attraction occurs after the initial lust stage has started to fade and a deeper connection to the individual is felt (Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li & Brown, 2002).
This stage takes more conscious factors in such as common likes and dislikes, similar goals and styles and common pursuits for family and intellectual pursuits suitable for long-term commitment, and research indicates that a variety of chemical are consistently released into the brain during this stage. The last stage that biology theorists identified is attachment, occurring in long lasting relationships where a certain level of commitment and understanding is made (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Madey & Rodgers, 2009).
Sex drive verse reproduction[edit | edit source]
The human sex drive is a product of the pleasure associated with having sex and achieving orgasm. The pleasure associated with sex ensures that reproduction continues despite the disadvantages associated with procreation. These disadvantages include the dangers and pain associated with childbirth, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and the time and resources required for child rearing, yet society continues to thrive (Fisher, Aron & Brown, 2006).
Psychological theoretical approaches to loves[edit | edit source]
Maslow's Hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]
Maslow's Hierarchy of needs was one of the first theories to explore what motivated people, however this theory also explored where the requirement for romantic love and companionship fell within this hierarchy of needs. Maslow proposed there was set needs and requirements that motivated human survival and that those needs ranged from seeking rewards, unconscious desires and basic needs. Only when one set of needs is fulfilled do humans have the ability to seek to fulfil the next set of needs (Lester, 2013).
Over the years Maslow's Hierarchy of needs has been refined to hold seven levels (sets) of needs these include:
- Biological and Physiological needs (Human survival- water, food, sex)
- Safety needs (Physical safety, health and shelter)
- Love and belonging needs (Friendship, Family, companionship, love)
- Esteem needs (Self-esteem and self-respect)
- Cognitive needs (Gaining knowledge and improvement of self)
- Aesthetic needs (Appreciation for beauty and balance)
- Self-Actualization needs (Reaching fulfilment in one’s life)
Level three focuses on love and belonging this includes all forms of love from friendships, familial love, romantic love, consummate love and companionate love (Lester, 2013).
Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies where romantic love fits into a larger picture of human needs however this theory alone cannot provide any answers as to what love is, how it is measured or the neurobiology of it. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the foundation for understanding these things however.
Sternberg's triangular theory of love[edit | edit source]
The psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the Triangular theory of love. This theory like the biology of attachment has three components however it is usually represented in the form of a triangle (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Madey & Rodgers, 2009)(see image 3).
These components are:
- The Intimacy component (the top of the pyramid) signifies a close, connected, intimate relationship.
- The Passion component (bottom left hand corner of the pyramid) signifies sexual attraction, love and passion for the other person.
- The Commitment component (bottom right hand corner of the pyramid) signifies the decision of chose to be with person, promises for the future and plans for long-term commitment to the other (de Boer, van Buel, Ter Horst, 2012; Madey & Rodgers, 2009).
Sternberg's theory critically review by peers has been proven to be an effective measure of love, however refinements have been made over the years to triangle that is now so well-known and used.
Forms of love[edit | edit source]
The level and type of love experienced are dependent on how much an individual is corresponds to each particular component and the level at which the three components interact (Esch & Stefano, 2005). The different types of love define below in table 1 explore the different combinations and strength of these three components.
The different types of love[edit | edit source]
Table 1 -According to Sternberg formulated triangular theory of love.
|Type of love||Characteristics of the triangle||What it means|
|Nonlove||None||Nonlove characterises the large majority of human interactions and relationships.|
|Liking/friendship||Intimacy||Characterized as true friendship (closeness, bonding, and warm relationship, without feelings of passion)|
|Infatuated love||Passion||Passionate arousal or attraction and an absence of intimacy or commitment.|
|Empty love||Commitment||Characterized by commitment without intimacy or passion.|
|Romantic love||Intimacy and Passion||Romantic love means the individuals are not only physically attracted to each other (with passion)and are also bonded emotionally but without sustaining commitment.|
|Companionate love||Intimacy and Commitment||This is an intimate love but not passionate however is stronger than liking/ friendship love because of the long-term commitment and care.|
|Fatuous love||Passion and Commitment||Whirlwind romances and marriages, the commitment is usually based solely on passion but little to no intimacy and knowledge of the other.|
|Consummate love||Intimacy, Passion and Commitment||The only form of love that has all three elements. The "ideal relationship". These couples continue to have passion well into a decade of marriage and continue to increase the level of intimacy and commitment held.|
Remember the earlier case study earlier, now that you understand Sternberg triangular theory of love you will you know that Melissa and Steve were originally in the Romantic love stage and their relationship developed into companionate love. This indicates that they don't have alot of passion in their relation anymore, for some people this kind of love is wonderful and enough later in life. Would this be enough for you?
Romantic love[edit | edit source]
What is romantic love?[edit | edit source]
Love is a complex neurobiological phenomenon that relies on two parties
According to research there are three phases in romantic love relationships (Wang & Young, 2004).
- Phase one- Infatuated love: Typically this is characterised by intense passion, a rise in intimacy both physically and psychologically and an increase desire to see one another. Displays of affection such as holding hands, kissing and the inability to concentrate on anything else are behavioural signs displayed in this phase. This phase generally lasts 6 months and is characterised by high nerve growth factor (NGF) and low serotonin levels as indicated below.
- Phase two- Passionate love: Generally last several years before developing into companionate love.
- Phase three- Companionate love: Companionate love (sometimes known as Affectionate love) follows passionate love. It occurs when a couple have been together for a significant period of time, reaching a mutual understanding, respect and level of care for one another. Long-term relationship to survive and continue to thrive.
Following the three phases there is another triangle with intimacy, passion, and commitment points. These points meet the phases to provide the categories (types) of love as seen in Table 1 and the combination of these can be seen in Image 3. Sternberg believed that love was fluid and evolved and changed over time, moving from one form to another and sometime backwards before progression forwards. However all couples in love will experience intimate, passionate, and committed love similarly (Fisher, Aron & Brown, 2006; Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Campos & Altemus, 2006).
Sternberg’s Triangular theory of love identifies seven types of love. These types are created using the combinations of the three phases and the three points of love and can change. There is also a description of non-love is listed below, along with the other kinds of love (Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Campos & Altemus, 2006).
Depictions of Romantic love in artistic pursuits[edit | edit source]
Romantic love is depicted in movies, books, painting, art, poetry and many more artistic pursuits often by passionate embraces or grand discolorations, but is this a true reflection of romantic love or are these merely other forms of love we are confusing for romantic love? Take Romeo and Juliet for example.
What is your favourite depiction of romantic love? Shakespeare's- Romeo and Juliet or perhaps Nicholas Sparks- The Notebook[edit | edit source]
What if you were told that Romeo and Juliet according to Sternberg's Triangular theory of love weren't actually in love (romantic love) as usually depicted but instead were in phase one the intimacy stage where strong feelings of desire, passion and excitement are exhibited and behavior is often bold to and one sighted to the detriment of one's self. Compare that with the type of love displayed in the notebook, are they the same kind of love?
If you answered no, you were correct. The type of love displayed at the end of the notebook is romantic love. The two characters in are in the commitment component of Sternberg's Triangular theory of love or when exploring the type of love it can only be that of consummate love. Noah and Allie represent the ideal relationship and example of romantic love, having been through the other stages of loves and maintaining their passion for one another. If their passion for one another had been lost over the course of time then their love would have changed into companionate love.
Neurobiology[edit | edit source]
What does the neurobiology of romantic love look like?
The brain in love-neuroanantomy[edit | edit source]
Limbic system[edit | edit source]
The limbic system is a system of complex of nerve networks within the human brain. It includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, olfactory bulbs, thalamus, fornix, cingulate gyrus, cortex, caudate nucleus, basil ganglia, dentate gyrus, hippocampus and the parahippocampal gyrus. The limbic system controls basic emotion such as fear and pleasure (to name a few) and basic urges or drives such as reproduction and hunger (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Esch & Stefano, 2005).
Hypothalamus[edit | edit source]
The hypothalamus is a small peanut shaped part of the brain that lies just beneath the thalamus and cerebrum. The hypothalamus controls the strength of the heart beat including its speed and the rhythm and depth of breathing through the autonomic nervous system which are physical responses to attraction and are unconscious/involuntary in nature (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Esch & Stefano, 2005; Fisher, Aron & Brown, 2006).
The hypothalamus also maintains the secretion of hormones in the body through the pituitary gland which is a pea-sized component of the human brain located at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus is responsible for the physiologic functions including sex drive, lust and the associated chemicals developed and released and its activity is increased during arousal (Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li & Brown, 2002).
Brain chemistry- The love hormones and chemicals[edit | edit source]
All relationships change the brain and chemical levels of the human body (Young, Wang & Zuoxin, 2004). Oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine combined are significant in successful pair-bonding and monogamy (Beauregard, Courtemanche, Paquette, & St-Pierre, 2009; Carter, 1998).
Oxytocin and Vasopressin[edit | edit source]
Oxytocin is a natural chemical the body produces in the hypothalamus, oxytocin is then stored in the pituitary gland ready for dissemination throughout the body. Oxytocin is critical in the development of attraction and reproduction, playing a role in the creation of intimacy, bonding and attachment, sexual pleasure and during neonatal (before birth) and antenatal (after birth) development (Gouina, Carter, Pournajafi-Nazarloo & et al, 2010; Heinrichs, von Dawans & Domes, 2009; Wang & Young, 2004).
Oxytocin is often called the love transmitter or the trust hormone because when released it induces feelings of trust and reduces feelings of fear (Gouina, Carter, Pournajafi-Nazarloo & et al, 2010; Heinrichs, von Dawans & Domes, 2009).
Vasopressin is critical for the strong healthy cardiovascular function and in maintaining good blood pressure whereas oxytocin is required for the development of emotional bonds between individuals, however its principle action is to trigger the release of milk following birth and in triggering contractions for birthing a child (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Zeki, 2007).
Oxytocin is often described as the love transmitter as it increases the sexual desire, arousal and receptivity in females and assists in the creation of sexual arousal and erections in males (Wang & Young, 2004). Vasopressin however is released by the brain during sexual activity (Carter, 1998; Gouina, Carter, Pournajafi-Nazarloo & et al, 2010; de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012).
Vasopressin assists to induces partner preference and selection in maleson the other hand Oxytocin induces partner preference and selection in females. There is usually one oxytocin neuropeptide for every three vasopressin neuropeptide in bonding (Acevedo, Aron, Fisher & Brown, 2011; Esch & Stefano, 2005; Zeki, 2007; Heinrichs, von Dawans & Domes, 2009).
Oxytocin and vasopressin interact with the dopamine reward system, making falling in love, sex and romantic love a rewarding experience (Gouina, Carter, Pournajafi-Nazarloo & et al, 2010; de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Wang & Young, 2004)
Dopamine[edit | edit source]
Dopamine is an organic chemical that carries messages influence reward, affects neurological processes such movement control, emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Dopamine is also the chemical that influences addiction (drugs and other such vices). Biologically speaking new lovers are truly addicted to one another and can experience withdrawal symptoms much the same as drug addicts going through drug withdrawal when the don't get to see one another (Zeki, 2007; Young, Wang & Zuoxin, 2004).
Dopamine is releases as part of a neurological reward system setup by the brain, and when bonding occurs between couples dopamine is released as a reward. Pair bonding therefore neurologically speaking can be considered to be the result of a conditioned brain. For instance the reinforcement of sex (the unconditioned stimulus) and the smell of the aftershave of the partner (Conditioned stimulus) evoke thoughts of them and the release of dopamine makes you want them more, its part of the dopamine motivation and reward system (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Esch & Stefano, 2005; Zeki, 2007; Young, Wang & Zuoxin, 2004).
The release of dopamine induces the release of oxytocin whereas the release of oxytocin increase dopamine levels in the body (Young, Wang & Zuoxin, 2004).
Testosterone[edit | edit source]
The hypothalamus controls testosterone levels through the pituitary and testicles.
Testosterone is a key component in male development, behaviours (such as aggression and competitiveness) and sexual interaction. Lower levels of testosterone are found in males who are in the intimacy stage of a new relationship opposed to women who are found to have elevated levels of testosterone (Esch & Stefano, 2005; Zeki, 2007).
Testosterone is affected by sexual activity however it’s not the only thing that affects it. Have you ever heard that professional athletes don’t engage in sexual activity before a big game? Well there might just be some truth in it after all as testosterone levels rise and fall when taking part in competitive activities just as much as sexual activity. Low testosterone can cause a loss of motivation, competitiveness and even lack of energy (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Esch & Stefano, 2005; Zeki, 2007).
Serotonin[edit | edit source]
In early stages of a new romantic relationship a depletion of serotonin occursobsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) indicating that serotonin is important to the obsessive nature of new love (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Zeki, 2007).. The level of depletion is significant and similar to those found in patients diagnosed with
Serotonin levels are linked to appetite and mood, it therefore not a surprise that individuals with broken hearts have little appetite and are solemn in their mood. Love, after all, can be type of obsession (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Zeki, 2007).
|Biochemistry of romance|
|In-love symptoms and behaviors||chemical production (Neurotransmitter)|
|Exhilaration, euphoria, feelings of connection||High dopamine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) levels|
|Increased energy, loss of appetite, wakefulness and alertness||Dopemine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and high serotonin levels|
|Anxiousness, trembling, flush of color on face or cheeks, butterflies of the tummy, uncontrolled sweating of palms, face or neck, weakness in joints, rising heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, dizziness, motivation to reorder priorities and possessiveness.||Dopamine|
|Anxiety, fear (of the person, awkwardness, rejection, humiliation), uncertainty, emotionally reactive and sensitivity, shyness||Dopamine and low serotonin levels|
|Separation anxiety, despair, feelings of loneliness and longing||Low endorphins|
|Intense focus and attention, long eye contact, pupil dilation||Possible low levels of dopamine and norepinephrine (noradrenaline)|
|Heightened attention to detail and memory, preoccupation with feelings to the executions of everything else, hope and fantasy||Dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and low levels of serotonin|
|Male sexual stimulation (arousal), ability to engage in sexual activity and feeling of Lust||Testosterone|
|Heightened bonding facilitation, learning ability, memory creation and retrieval mechanisms, increase in female receptivity to sexual advances and activity, creation and development of emotional bonding between individuals||Oxytocin|
|Female sexual arousal and increase of sex drive,increase in female receptivity to sexual advances and activity and feelings of lust||Estrogen|
In studies where participants undergo brain imagining (fMRI), romantic love shows activation in a significant portion of the limbic system and brainhippocampus, stratum, anterior cingulate cortex and the hypothalamus all light-up, interestingly these are all areas of the brain important in the reward system (Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong & Mashek, 2010).. The medialinsula,
FMRI's have shown that there is a significant overlap between the various types of love with the dopamine reward system activating for romantic and material kind of love. However, activation occurs in the hypothalamus for romantic love and sexual arousal but not for maternal and other forms of love (de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012; Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong & Mashek, 2010).
Thinking back to the case study and now that you know a little more about the neurobiology and chemistry of the brain can you think of anything that might increase the level of passion in the relationship?
No? Remember that oxytocin is often described as the love transmitter as it increases the sexual desire and vasopressin is released by the brain during sexual activity meaningif Melissa and Steve wanted to improve their passionate love then all they need to do is increase the level of arousal and sexual activity. The more you have the more you want (Carter, 1998; Gouina, Carter, Pournajafi-Nazarloo & et al, 2010; de Boer, van Buel & Ter Horst, 2012).
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
The idea of love is a rewarding one but the how and why humans love has been an eternally elusive. It's safe to say that love is a series of complex neurobiological activities that occur in the background without you ever having to think about them, however it's more than a series of neurons and transmitters.
The human body produces a multitude of chemicals to assist in the creation and maintenance of love, chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, testosterone, estrogen, nerve growth factor, serotonin and cortisol. Even with all the help provided by the human body the issue of finding the one worthy of the release of dopamine and oxytocin still remains. Humans have high expectations of romantic love and what it means, believing it to be passionate, all consuming and a mix of sweet and ravenous all at oncebut perhaps society is mixing up romantic love with passionate love because they just don't know any better.
Research into the neurobiology of love has included researchers from disciplines such as biology, neurobiology, psychology and philosophy, however the original question still remains, "what is love?". Further research into what love actually is and how we can apply those answers to the average person's everyday romantic needs in the future is needed, especially as divorce rates continue to climb. Perhaps if society understands the various types of love and how to evolve the passion in relationships that have long ago left it behind it will be different. Remember making love with your partner produces oxytocin and dopamine which make you want to engage more frequently in passionate activities. The more you get the more you want and the passion grows .
Neurobiology and brain chemistry plays a huge role in who you pick as your romantic partner and oxytocin and dopamine should be your favourite chemicals as they are the love and pleasure chemicals of the body.
Quiz[edit | edit source]
See also[edit | edit source]
- Unconscious Sources of Attraction (Book Chapter, 2015)
- Love and Lust (Book Chapter, 2015)
- Love (Book Chapter, 2011)
References[edit | edit source]
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